This article was written by, and is reproduced with the permission of, Cookie Curci, a long-time resident of Willow Glen who’s father owned Rocci’s Pronto Pup just down the street from the theater.
If I were to choose just one thing that best defined Lincoln Avenue of the 1950s and ’60s, it would have to be Bud and J.B.Lima’s Garden Theater.
A great theater, by definition, is one that furnishes its customers with state of the art sight and sound, fulfills the moviegoers every comfort and expresses the personality and rhythm of its community. The Garden Theater was all of this and more to Willow Glen.
Bud and his father, J.B Lima, began construction on the Garden Theater in 1948.In June, the magnificent theater opened its engraved glass doors to the public. Until then the only movie house on the avenue was the old Willow Glen Theater, also owned by J. B. and Bud Lima. .
The night the Garden opened, the tall, red letters adorning the theater’s marquee spelled out the words, KNOCK ON ANY DOOR The film starred America’s number one box office bad guy, Humphrey Bogart.
As dusk fell and the huge neon letters twinkled out the name G-A-R-D-E-N, a sense of anticipation ran through the community. We could see the grand marquee shinning for blocks away in all directions, its colorful lights enticing us to its doors.
I stood patiently in line with my family to purchase our 35 cent ticket, tickets that would carry us to a world of make-believe and adventure, a place that existed far beyond the reaches of our own imaginations. Every visit to the Garden Theater brought us to another realm.
A great excitement fell over patrons as we entered the theater, clamoring to be the first ones in our seats. With our buttered popcorn and our chocolate walnettos, we settled in our seats promptly at 7:00 p.m., and for the next 4 hours we sat mesmerized.
I can remember the thrill of anticipation after hearing a voice in the projection booth call “Lights out”. It took about a minute afterward for the murmuring crowd to fall silent and the overhead amber glass chandeliers to dim. The shimmering blue satin curtains parted and for a few hours thereafter we were free from the practical cares of life.
In 1938, J.B. took over ownership of the Victory, The Jose and Liberty Theaters in downtown San Jose. Later, in 1943, he purchased the old Willow Glen Theater. In 1951, A J was also the owner and manager of the Burbank Theater. During W W II he also was the proprietor of theaters in Angels Camp. Mayfield and Menlo Park as well as an interest in the Portola Theaters in San Francisco.
The small Willow Glen Theater, with its unadorned marquee, had served its community well through many years, but the influx of families to our post war town demanded a larger movie house.
The Cutsinger family had previously owned the old Willow Glen theater. However, it was under the Lima ownership that the theater was redefined. After Bud Lima and his father J.B. expanded to the Garden Theater, they renamed the Willow Glen Theater “The Vogue” and converted the small movie house into a foreign film cinema. Through their auspices, the theater became a haven for cultural films and a popular refuge for our city’s foreign film buffs.
Bud Lima and his father understood the growing needs of an eclectic community and their desire for a wider verity of film viewing. One of the most popular of these foreign films to be shown at the old theater was “The Red Shoes”. The classic story by Hans Christian Anderson was in demand at theaters all over the United States. But, it was Bud and J.B. Lima who were the first theater managers to bring the film to San Jose. During those years, the Willow Glen Theater hosted other great classics as well, among them the famous “Bicycle Thief” directed by Vitorio DeSica. Like most viewers of this film, I couldn’t understand the language, but with subtitles, even a kid my age could understand I was viewing a masterpiece.
Bud Lima was educated to be an engineer and began his studies at UC- Berkeley. But the theater business was booming, and his dad encouraged him to join the family business. After his discharge from the army in 1946, Bud joined his Dad in the family enterprise. And for the next decade the Lima family theaters rode the wave of movie house prosperity.
In 1956, after sitting in the sidelines, television, the slayer of the written word, was ready to steal the show. It didn’t take America long to forsake the movie house for their living room where they could be entertained while wearing their bathrobe and slippers.
The decline in popularity of the motion picture show sent many theater managers searching for new endeavors. It was around this time that Bud Lima rekindled his desire to become an electrical engineer. Bud began classes at San Jose State university, known then as San Jose State college, and at Stanford University where he received his degree in engineering. Later he became a professor of electrical engineering at SJSU. Many of Bud’s students were the very same youngsters who once attended the Garden’s kiddy matinee.
The world was changing in the era of the movie house. Life as we knew it was changing both profoundly and trivial. A nervous nation watched the skies while satellites were being sent up and spy planes were being shot down. The McCarthy hearings were televised, hydrogen bombs were exploded, and home bomb shelters were being built and the 101 St Air born troops were landing in Little Rock to restore peace and order. Was it any wonder that local families flocked to our Garden Theater to find solace in the fiction of films?
We clung tightly to our childhood dreams, to a “safe place” where good always triumphed over evil and where there was always a happy ending.
I’m grateful to Bud Lima and to his Dad J.B. for giving us the Garden Theater and the rich community memories it left behind. And I’m grateful for all those long afternoons I spent rooted in my seat at the kiddy-matinee watching my screen heroes who were forty feet tall and whose morals were just as big.
We’re grateful to Cookie for sharing this great story about what was clearly a major part of Willow Glen’s downtown scene for several decades. To learn more about what eventually happened to the theater, including where in the bay area some of the artwork and fixtures were relocated, check out this page about the Garden Theater on Cinema Treasures.com.